ABOUT 20 years ago I was peeling and pointing about three wagon loads of posts a week and, in order to keep up with orders, I was buying in roughly the same quantity of imported rounds.

With the ban on CCA I was supplied with information on how to proceed with this new generation of treatments. This advice had been coordinated by an organisation called the Wood Protection Agency (WPA). Its advice was to use redwoods (ideally pine, followed by larch and Douglas fir).

The imported rounds were pine and we were being supplied with pine locally from Thrunton Woods, so I thought I ticked the criteria. The timber from Thrunton had been sitting in dry conditions for some time, so the initial treatment went right through and achieved a 100-per-cent uptake. What could go wrong?


Basically everything! The imported rounds started to go rotten in the packs and the home-produced likewise. What was even worse was that these new-generation treatments appeared to wash away in the rain, giving the appearance of an untreated product. Overnight my reputation was trashed and I had to carry the stigma of the guy who sold rotten wood. For a business in a tight-knit community, that’s not an easy stigma to bear. Furthermore, clients laid the blame entirely at the feet of the sawmill.

At the time I highlighted this situation in an article in Forestry Journal, which some readers may remember. Shortly after I followed this with a more in-depth analysis which was not published due to intervention by an individual claiming I was bringing the industry into disrepute. Fast forward 20 years and look at things now. The UK is now flooded with imported creosote posts, unsightly galvanised metal posts and even concrete posts. Could my article at the time really have made the current situation any worse? 

What I really wanted to say in that article 20 years ago was that the advice from the WPA was 100-per-cent wrong. According to its guidance, the more treatment you got into the wood the longer it would last. The reality is that larch heartwood with zero-per-cent uptake lasts the longest, followed by Douglas fir, spruce and lastly pine, because we are relying on the wood’s natural resistance. If the treatments worked or we used a proven product like creosote, then the chart would be flipped 180 per cent. However, by now the number of complaints about the new treatments was becoming endemic, so I suggested we should be honest and look for a solution to what was clearly becoming a crisis. The WPA’s solution was to blame the sawmills, which were hardly in a position to defend themselves.

About seven years ago the WPA set up two test sites, one in England and the other in Scotland. After about five years some of the kiln-dried spruce was dug up and deemed to be okay (as a point of reference, kiln-dried spruce will last about 8–10 years on account of the cells, having been dried, closing up and keeping water out). The Douglas fir and larch were also reported to be okay. Strangely, there was no mention of the pine, which had been the focal point of the entire issue by the WPA, and this time there was no reference to the culpability of the mills. Two years later, more tests revealed the Douglas, spruce and larch were still okay, yet there was still no mention of the pine. Is the inference here that the pine is in even better condition? I’m staggered by the murkiness of the reporting. It’s a bit like my garden last year, where my potato crop was fantastic and my beetroots were even better, so my cabbages must have been truly amazing (as it happened, they weren’t, as the majority were eaten by slugs).

I find it hard to believe that an organisation which sets itself up as an expert on a topic can dance around the facts in the way it does. The livelihoods of numerous trades and businesses rely on this information for their very existence and in my opinion this advice has clearly been incorrect (I am currently collaborating on a small booklet on the subject, having gathered information from all around the UK, which will provide a real guide on what works and what doesn’t).

Thankfully, in the UK most of the big mills use spruce, which when dried out has good longevity. Wood from these mills goes mainly to timber merchants where it has further opportunity to dry, so the big mills haven’t come in for the same flack as the smaller ones. In fact, many of these mills have seen record growth and profits. The smaller mills haven’t fared as well, as they depend on local demand and reputation. Sadly, many have gone under or had to diversify to stay in business. I have gone from small roundwood to the milling of over-sized logs. In hindsight, this was a very good move and one which I wish I’d made a few years earlier, thereby avoiding all the venom and nastiness associated with the treatment issue.

Living in a small, close-knit community meant having to face my detractors every day. It was difficult to walk into the local pub without the whispers, and there were those who seemingly wanted me to fail and go under when in all this time it was never my fault. It probably cost me in excess of £200,000 and the mental health issues associated with it will probably haunt me forever. I know I must seem like a stuck record to some people and it is an area I keep returning to, but I do feel a sense of injustice. I’m in a much better place now and will move on (my little book with a buyer’s guide will be advertised in due course).

Moving on to a happier subject, my wife is 21 years younger than me and recently asked if I still wrote for Forestry Journal and, if I did, what subjects I discussed.

After mention of wood, saws and preservatives she opined that maybe people might like to know a few things about my life away from work, so here goes ...

I have a one-year-old daughter and a 25 year old, the latter with whom I have little contact. The one-year-old takes up a lot of my spare time as she was walking at nine months and now, at 16 months, she’s climbing ladders and frames meant for much older children. We have a treehouse and zip wire in the garden, which I built for my 10-year-old stepson and, after a small adaptation, I’ve been able to attach the seat from the baby swing for her. Pulling her along is excellent therapy and rehabilitation following my recent encounter with an ash tree. I’m also fortunate in that we live in a beautiful and quite remote part of Northumberland and at this time of the year the fields are bursting with new life and my daughter loves sitting in the pickup and seeing the new lambs. She’s even been helping me plant vegetables in the garden and, with another addition on the way, I think it’s important as an older dad to stay fit and healthy. By encouraging her to grow her own food we should set a good precedent.

In fact, I’m convinced my subsistence on home-grown vegetables and home-reared meat throughout most of last year made a considerable contribution towards my recovery from my near-death experience with the ash. We have a number of Galloway bullocks that are nearly ready for slaughter and it’s my intention this year to grow as much of our own vegetables a possible. We’re also fortunate in that there is a farm shop not far away that sells organic milk.

I know what you’re thinking – he’s grown a beard, started smoking weed and bought some sandals. Sawmill Dave has become a hippy! Not so, it’s just that eating like this last year seemed to make a considerable difference to my health and welfare and seriously aided my recovery and I’d like it to continue.

We have a number of Galloway bullocks that are nearly ready for slaughterWe have a number of Galloway bullocks that are nearly ready for slaughter (Image: Voice)

On the subject of Galloway cattle, I recently had to have them TB tested. I wanted to squash them all together in a cattle race, but health and safety meant that I had to trap their heads in a cattle crush. This was fine on the first attempt, but three days later there was no way the cattle were having it. After three laps of the field on my dodgy knees I decided the only way was to charge them with the tractor. The vet accepted my logic and so, with them all squashed together without the headlock, he was able to do what he needed to do. Sometimes, bureaucrats in offices who cook up these theoretical rules need to stop working from home, get out into the real world and listen to people.